Throwback to Lunching with John and Ruth Fluevog

By Sarah Beam-Borg – Exhibition Manager and Assistant Curator

Popular opinion and Hollywood movies tend to box museum work into two very disparate categories. The field is thought to either be hopelessly boring and dusty, or tremendously glamorous and exciting. Like many professions the reality is of course somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Some days are pretty quiet and dusty which has its own appeal, and then there are those days that actually knock your socks off (if you’ll pardon the cliché).
Fox and Fluevog fashion boots mid 1970s

I had a pretty glamorous, knock-your-socks-off museum day today. I got to have lunch and spend the afternoon with the inimitable shoe designer John Fluevog and his winsome wife Ruth. It all started when John was chosen to be the Two/Ten Foundation’s Shoe Person of the Year for 2011. The Two/Ten Foundation is an organization whose tagline is “Shoe People Helping Shoe People”; it serves many functions but ultimately is a resource for knowledge and support in the footwear industry. The Bata Shoe Museum often donates the event space in the museum for the annual awards banquet when it occurs in Toronto; this year it will happen on January 24th 2012.

I had a late-in-the-game thought on Friday January 20th that I would like very much to meet John Fluevog when he is here in Toronto and so I sent out an email requesting to take him to lunch. I was pretty sure that he would be booked solid and that I might get a polite but firm “good try” email from his staff. I was delighted on Sunday night to receive an email from John himself, letting me know that he and Ruth were free and looking forward to lunch with Elizabeth our Senior Curator and myself on Monday (much late-night scrambling to find something appropriate to wear ensued).

They arrived at the museum on Monday looking impossibly fashionable and casual; very much the Vancouverite’s birth-right. All four of us immediately hit it off and we had a delicious lunch at Bar Mercurio across the street where John very candidly told us about the highs and lows of his long and impressive career in the shoe industry. He shrugs off the title shoe designer several times over the course of the meal and insists that his shoes are instead a manifestation of his world-view. One look at his shoes will tell you that he eschews the fashionable silhouette of each decade in which he works and instead embraces an off-trend and totally unique style. Fluevog shoe wearers are devotees, he enjoys cult leader-like status among his fans who purchase, wear and collect multiple pairs.
Early Fox and Fluevog wooden clog with silk-screened leather upper – early 1970s

The Bata Shoe Museum has long been interested in John’s work and we’ve collected eight pairs and singles. It is not easy for a museum to collect contemporary pieces because it is difficult to truly understand the style of a decade while living in it; therefore the Fluevog pieces that are in the BSM’s collection are here mostly through the generosity of donors. They are a curious mix of his iconic and unique works; from an early leather and wood clog to a unique pair of leather and acrylic Absolut Vodka shoes which were made by John and Ken Rice as a one-off and were collected by Mrs. Bata for the museum in 1995.

Fluevog and Rice’s Absolut Vodka Shoes 1994
When I first moved to Toronto in 1997 and started working for the Bata Shoe Museum I went a little crazy in the many glorious shoe stores around the city. I visited the John Fluevog store on Queen Street West often in search of the perfect pair; in 1999 I found a pair of silver suede wedges with a cantilevered, glittery silver, acrylic heel from the Lift-Off Orbit line. They were my absolute favorite shoes and I wore them often with an equally silvery outfit (it was the late 90s; trust me it worked then, but I’m glad I don’t have photos of the whole outfit, it was a little “much”). As my sense of style shifted to a more conservative tack, the shoes sat in the back of my closet and it was not until my husband and I moved to a slightly less closet-rich condo that I was encouraged to move them along. I chose to donate them to the museum’s collection where I know they’ll be well maintained and treasured in perpetuity (a fate much more favourable than the back of my closet).

Sarah’s silver Lift-Off Orbit shoes from 1999
After lunch, Elizabeth and I took John and Ruth down into our two large storage rooms where they oooh-ed and ahhhh-ed for a few hours. It is always fun to take shoe designers down into storage but this afternoon was really special. John and Ruth really “know” shoes; from design to fabrication they are steeped in the subject. I took them through storage aisle by aisle and their interest never waivered, they were consuming so many visuals that by the time we left to get back on the elevator they looked like they had been drinking from a firehose. To finish the visit, I took them through our galleries so they could get a sense of how we take our collection of over 13,000 pairs of shoes and interpret them for our visitors.

For me the visit was a highlight of my fourteen year career at the Bata Shoe Museum, for John and Ruth it was a visual feast and hopefully the first of many times they come and see the collection. I am trying not to over-state my excitement and sound ridiculous so I will sign-off by saying how wonderful it was for me - in this increasingly globalized world where we are further and further away from the genesis of our consumer goods - to meet the man that designed one of my favourite pairs of shoes.

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